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Is Lindsey Graham running for president to troll Rand Paul?

Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call Group/ Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.
  1. On Monday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) announced that he would run for president in 2016.
  2. His speech concentrated overwhelmingly on foreign policy. "I want to be president to defeat the enemies that are trying to kill us," he said. "I am ready to be commander in chief on day one."
  3. His main campaign theme will be "Security through Strength," a modification of Ronald Reagan's "Peace Through Strength" policy for the Cold War.
  4. In an apparent shot at Sen. Rand Paul, Graham said that "those who believe that we should withdraw from the world" should vote for someone else.

Graham wants to ensure that the GOP stays hawkish

Graham seemingly has no chance of winning the GOP nomination. The conservative base despises him (he is nicknamed "Lindsey Grahamnesty" for his support of immigration reform), and there seems to be little establishment enthusiasm for him apart from his good friend Sen. John McCain, who's long been egging on the man he calls his "illegitimate son" to run.

So it seems quite possible that the main purpose of a Graham campaign isn't to win — but to troll Rand Paul.

Okay, the word "trolling" is uncharitable — Graham has serious substantive differences of opinion with Paul on foreign policy. Graham and McCain are now, effectively, the leaders of the GOP's interventionist wing. They've pushed for more hawkish policies in Syria and Iraq, and called for a tougher line against Putin's Russia.

But Paul has been making the case that the GOP needs to rethink its recent support for interventionism. In a speech last October, Paul went at the party's foreign policy consensus "with a battering ram," as Zack Beauchamp wrote. He wants more restraint generally and less military interventionism overseas, and argues that the hawkish policies pushed by McCain and Graham are often counterproductive.

In an interview with the Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes back then, Graham mentioned how important he thought it was to make the case for a hawkish foreign policy. "If nobody steps up in the presidential mix," he said, "I may just jump in to get to make these arguments."

As Graham implied, a presidential run is a great way to get media attention for your ideas (although the senator has never found that particularly difficult).

But as Harry Enten writes today, Graham may already have won the foreign policy argument. The Republican base, which had been flirting with less interventionist foreign policy ideas, is now once again embracing traditionally hawkish policies akin to Graham's. "Graham is preaching to an electorate that has mostly come back around to his views on foreign policy and national security," Enten writes.

Still, Paul will clearly continue to get attention for his platform throughout the campaign — as he is in this weekend's debate about reauthorizing Patriot Act provisions. Though other hopefuls have also proven eager to take potshots at Paul, Graham's entrance into the race ensures that the GOP base will hear his own distinctive critique of the Kentucky senator, every step of the way.